Efforts to bring an orphaned nine-year-old South African girl to the Cowichan Valley to live with her great aunt have been derailed by the federal government.
Shawnigan Lake’s Lisa Pyne-Mercier, who is originally from South Africa, has been working hard at great personal expense to bring her great niece Ryleigh Ridland to Canada for two years after her mother, Jackie Ridland, died in a remote house in the African country.
The High Commission of Canada in South Africa wrote a letter turning down Ryleigh’s latest applications for permanent residence status in Canada and a study permit in early January stating that Ryleigh doesn’t qualify to immigrate to Canada even though Pyne-Mercier had been granted guardianship and full parental rights to Ryleigh in South Africa, as Jackie had requested in her will.
The letter said that although Ryleigh meets the definition of an orphan under South African law due to abandonment by her biological father, she is not considered an orphan under Canadian law because her father is still alive.
“In addition, your sponsor does not meet one of the prescribed relationships as she is neither your sibling, your direct aunt as defined, nor your grandparent,” the High Commission said in the letter to Ryleigh, which Pyne-Mercier shared with the Citizen.
Ryleigh, who was just seven at the time of her mother’s death, spent several days alone in the home with her dead mom in temperatures that exceeded 40 C before being discovered.
Ryleigh was clinging to life, and she was traumatized, scared, angry, dehydrated, soiled, and crying when her rescuers finally arrived.
She was placed in foster care, and is currently living in a foster home in South Africa.
Pyne-Mercier said she’s frustrated that the federal government is not recognizing that she’s Ryleigh’s legal guardian.
“I don’t believe the High Commission knows the full details of this case and didn’t read all the documents involved,” she said.
“This situation is so incredibly unique that Canada has no laws around it. Ryleigh’s father waived all his parental rights to Ryleigh in the divorce with her mother. I think [the federal government] is treating this case as a sort of paint-by-numbers scenario in that if they don’t see what they want to see right in front of them, they’re not prepared to look for any more information.”
Court documents from the divorce of Jackie Ridland and her husband in 2016 confirm that the husband had ceded sole custody of Ryleigh to her mother as part of the terms of the settlement agreement.
“[Jackie Ridland] shall have sole guardianship in respect of the child, and no consent from [the husband] shall be necessary for matters that include the child’s marriage, adoption or departure and removal from from Republic [of South Africa],” the documents state.
In a court affidavit signed on Dec. 3, 2021, Ryleigh’s father states that he strongly believes Ryleigh would be better off living in Canada with Pyne-Mercier.
“The most important reason to agree on this is that she will also be in a stable environment because the aunt is more than willing to take care of my daughter,” he said in the affidavit.
Pyne-Mercier said she visited Ryleigh in South Africa for a week in October with the belief that she would be coming back to the Cowichan Valley with her, but a month passed without Canada giving Ryleigh the green light to come here and she had to travel back without her.
Pyne-Mercier said she has tried to contact Sean Fraser, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, to make him aware of the situation and ask for help, but she has yet to receive a response.
She said Alistair MacGregor, MP for Cowichan-Malahat-Langford, has stepped up to try and help and has also contacted Fraser on her behalf.
“He’s doing all he can,” Pyne-Mercier said of MacGregor.
“I just don’t know what else to do at this stage. I was considering adopting Ryleigh at the beginning of this process, but was told that I didn’t need to because I was already her full guardian. But I have jumped through all the hoops and still was not successful.”
MacGregor said he is working on Ryleigh’s file and is trying all options in an effort to bring her to Shawnigan Lake.
He said he has talked to Fraser in person about the issue but, although the minister has a fair amount of latitude in the process, Fraser has deferred to the decisions made by his ministry officials.
“There are two different laws in these cases in Canada and South Africa and while South Africa does recognize Lisa as the legal guardian of Ryleigh, being the great aunt of Raleigh just doesn’t fit the box in Canada,” MacGregor said.
“It’s heartbreaking and I intend to work all avenues to bring Ryleigh here, but the law is what it is.”
Pyne-Mercier said she is now again considering trying to adopt Ryleigh, but it’s a long and costly process, and she has already spent more than $20,000 in her efforts to bring Ryleigh to her home in Shawnigan Lake.
Pyne-Mercier said Ryleigh is being looked after well in South Africa by a loving foster family, but Ryleigh was upset when she was told her application to come to Canada was denied.
“The fact is the state can take her away from that foster family at any time, and it’s not the same as being with her real family,” she said.
“Imagine asking a nine-year-old girl to sit and wait for the basic human right to be raised with her family. The best interests of this child are not being considered.”
A statement from the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship said that, due to privacy legislation, the ministry can’t provide case-specific information.
However, the ministry said the government is sensitive to the emotional stress that can be caused when there are issues with cases involving children.
“Nonetheless, IRCC must take all necessary precautions to ensure that all international adoption cases involving children comply with Canadian laws, international laws, as well as the statutes and regulations of the child’s country of origin,” the ministry said.
“The government’s first priority is to protect the safety and well-being of the child/children involved in international adoptions.”
The ministry said that in Canada, adoption is the responsibility of the provinces and territories, and they all have their own legislation implementing the Hague Convention.
“Once the adoption process has been completed in accordance with the laws of both countries, then the immigration or citizenship process to bring the child to Canada can proceed,” the ministry said.
“IRCC’s role as the competent authority for immigration and citizenship is to make a determination on the right of the child to enter and reside permanently in Canada.”